The Senate Chamber During the Civil War


Eighteen-sixty-one proved to be one of the most dramatic years in this nation's history. From January through early August, the newly opened Senate chamber would serve as a principal theater for the first acts of a horrendous tragedy, the American Civil War. On January 21, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and four colleagues rose to offer final remarks before withdrawing from the body and returning to their home states. Believing that Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency threatened the institution of slavery and destroyed any hope of compromise, southern states began to act on the principle they had long espoused -- that states as sovereign bodies had a right to withdraw from the Union.

Spectators thronged the chamber's galleries and adjacent corridors as Davis began to speak. Tall and slender, his face racked with pain and illness, he explained in firm tones that his state had no choice but to leave the Union. He hoped it would be allowed to leave in peace, for "the reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country." To the sound of muffled weeping, senators and visitors then stood grimly as Davis led southern colleagues up the aisle and out of the chamber. The following month, the former senator became president of the Confederate States of America.

On March 4, following brief inaugural ceremonies for the first Republican president, the newly organized Republican-controlled Senate adjourned. Within six weeks, Fort Sumter in South Carolina had fallen to Confederate forces and a state of siege gripped the city of Washington. In April, the empty Senate chamber took on new life as quarters for a regiment of Massachusetts soldiers that had experienced heavy casualties on its way to relieve the capital. The aroma of baking bread and cooking bacon soon filled the air, as the weary soldiers took over the chamber. While one angry soldier tried to demolish the desk that Jefferson Davis had formerly occupied, most passed the time by holding mock legislative sessions and sending home postage-free letters on Senate stationery.

President Lincoln convened Congress on the Fourth of July to address the needs of a nation at war. Before adjourning on August 6, the Senate had enacted sixty-seven laws giving the president the resources and authority he needed to meet this dire emergency.